There’s nothing traditional about 2020, but Labor Day in years divisible by four is the customary time to assess the status of the presidential race. With 56 days to go, the challenger is on course to defeat the incumbent for the fourth time in the past half-century. But events could disrupt this trajectory.
Despite an unexpected surge in Covid-19 cases, the protests that erupted after George Floyd’s death, and both parties’ national conventions, the presidential contest remained remarkably stable throughout the summer. At the beginning of June, surveys gave Joe Biden an average of 49.2% of the popular vote, compared with 42.9% for President Trump. As of Labor Day, Mr. Biden’s share had risen slightly to 50.6%, while Mr. Trump’s remained virtually unchanged at 43%.
In elections with an incumbent president on the ballot, his job approval is the single best indicator of the share of the popular vote he is likely to get. As of now, public approval of Mr. Trump’s performance as president stands at 43.2%, about the same as his showing in the head-to-head race with Joe Biden. Unless the president can substantially increase the share of the electorate that thinks he is doing a good job, he will be the underdog.
This won’t be easy. Since the end of his first month in office, Mr. Trump’s job-approval average has never topped the 46.1% of the popular vote he received in 2016. This was just enough to earn him narrow victories in the Midwestern states that gave him his Electoral College majority, but it won’t be enough to repeat this feat in 2020.
Here’s why: In 2016, nearly 6% of the popular vote went to independent and third-party candidates, compared with an average of 2% in the four preceding elections after Ross Perot had left the scene. This year, with no well-known candidate on the Libertarian ticket, no challenge from the right or center to the Republican nominee, and only token left-wing opposition to the Democratic nominee, this 6% is likely to fall back to its usual level. Unless Mr. Trump can raise his vote share significantly above what he received four years ago, Mr. Biden will win a comfortable majority of both the popular and electoral votes.
A president who wins office without even a plurality of the popular vote would usually spend his first term trying to make new friends. Not Mr. Trump. His policies and personal style are calculated to preserve and intensify his base, whatever the consequences for other groups.
The consequences of this strategy became clear in the 2018 midterm elections, when turnout soared among Democrats to near-presidential levels. The Democratic share of the independent vote rose to 55% from 42%; among suburbanites, to 52% from 45%. In the heart of the middle class—households with annual incomes between $75,000 and $100,000—Democrats increased their vote share to 52% from 39%. Recent surveys suggest that Mr. Biden is holding on to at least some of these gains, in part because the president’s standing among suburban voters has fallen since 2016.
Nevertheless, the 2020 election is not over, for three reasons. First, Mr. Biden must hold together a heterogeneous coalition from the center right to the progressive left, which could be disrupted by issues such as the appropriate response to disorder and violence and the party’s stance toward fossil fuels. Despite Mr. Trump’s strenuous efforts to drive wedges into Mr. Biden’s support, this has not happened so far. But the risk remains.
Second, up to now, the 2020 election has been a classic referendum on the incumbent. Voters are supporting the president more because they approve of his performance than out of intense dislike for Mr. Biden. Voters are supporting Mr. Biden less because they are enthusiastic about him than because they ardently disapprove of Mr. Trump. Unlike 2004 and 2012, when incumbents succeeded in making their challengers the issue, the president has not yet shifted voters’ attention to Mr. Biden’s flaws. But if his negative advertising becomes more effective, he still might turn the tables.
Third, despite the Trump campaign’s efforts to undermine confidence in Mr. Biden’s mental and physical fitness to serve as president, the public remains unconvinced, and Mr. Biden’s vigorous and focused acceptance address dispelled some doubts. A strong performance in the first presidential debate, which could be watched by more than 70 million viewers, would put remaining worries to rest. A shaky performance could give them new life.
The basics favor Mr. Biden. Not only is the president’s job approval lagging, but also a majority of Americans say the U.S. is worse off now than it was four years ago, and their satisfaction with the country’s condition stands near a record low. Mr. Trump has a mountain to climb, and not much time to climb it.
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